Back Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge: Beyond the Science and Religion Dialogue

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Kathleen Duffy
The Role of Imagery, Particularly Scientific Imagery, in Transdisciplinary Dialogue


In a world where disciplinary specialization holds forth, veritable chasms seem to separate the ways of knowing from one another. Each has its own assumptions, its own methods, its own jargon, and its own approach to truth. Although the system of divide and conquer that has developed over the last four hundred years has proven very fruitful in advancing the frontiers of knowledge, it has, at the same time, promoted the illusion that each way of knowing forms a complete system uncoupled from the rest. In fact, it has even established a hierarchy among the disciplines, ranking them according to how concrete the evidence they have to substantiate their truth claims. This approach to knowing has flattened our understanding of things rather than interconnecting the many layers that constitute the fabric of our knowledge.

Yet, the illusion of disciplinary imperialism is slowly being shattered. Problems such as the environment, global economics, and world hunger that face the global community today are forcing us at least to cross the disciplinary divide, encouraging us to transcend these fictitious disciplinary boundaries. They are making obvious the need for more holistic learning processes. Yet, the bridges across the chasms that separate these many worlds are not easily constructed.

In this paper, I suggest that the arts, particularly the language of poetry and the imagery of the visual arts, could help us to bridge these chasms if we take them seriously. Whereas the mathematical sciences utilize processes that are rigorous, poetry thrives on language that is multilayered and ambiguous. Art, at its best, articulates insights that are still on the threshold of our consciousness. Because of its multilevel referencing, imagery of any kind is able to plumb the depths of reality and to provide connections between entities that otherwise appear paradoxical.

The place of scientific imagery in this endeavor seems critical in our day when scientific authority carries such weight. Since scientifically-based metaphors carry a raft of nuances and associations that embellish meaning, they could encourage us to look beneath the surface of physical phenomena into the depths. They could act as quasi-physical models and provide a visual construct for the numinous structure of the cosmos. Yet, like the models found in physical theories, they must constantly be reworked, extended, and sometimes even abandoned. This is particularly true since the greatest danger attending the use of imagery is the tendency to take the image literally, to freeze it onto a single level, thereby removing the ambiguity that is its virtue.

As we continue to search for transdisciplinary ways of knowing, I suggest that we examine previous attempts to use scientific imagery in order to determine its power and usefulness. As an example, I will discuss the work of palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I will point out how scientific imagery not only helped him to plumb the deeper layers of reality but also allowed him to integrate many of these layers into a new way of seeing the world as a whole.

Kathleen Duffy, SSJ is currently a Professor of Physics and co-Director of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program at Chestnut Hill College.  She holds a PhD in Physics from Drexel University.  Formerly, she taught physics at Drexel University, Bryn Mawr College, Ateneo de Manila University, and University of the Philippines.  Kathleen has published research in atomic and molecular physics and in chaos theory in journals such as Physics Review Letters, Journal of Chemical Physics and Chemical Physics Letters, as well as Philippine journals and bulletins.  She is a past President of the Board of Directors of the Metanexus Institute and continues to serve on this Board as Treasurer.  Kathleen also serves on the Advisory Boards of the American Teilhard Association and Cosmos and Creation.  Kathleen’s current research interest concerns the religious essays of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the relationship of his synthesis to modern developments in science.  She has published several book chapters and articles on these topics.  She is also editor of Teilhard Studies, the biannual publication of the American Teilhard Association.


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